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New Alberta clinic is tailored to South Asian people addicted to opioids

WATCH ABOVE: A new clinic in Edmonton is tailored to helping south Asian people addicted to opioids. Su-Ling Goh reports – Jul 8, 2019

Savera is a Hindi and Urdu name meaning “dawn” or “new beginning,” and that’s what an Edmonton psychiatrist is hoping to offer patients struggling with addiction.

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Dr. Avi Aulakh opened Savera Medical Centre in November, not far from Edmonton’s Little India. While Aulakh says Alberta’s opioid crisis has affected people of all ethnicities, he feels the South Asian population has been hit hard.

“It’s a huge problem,” Aulakh said. “I will say that this [South Asian] community is quite disproportionately affected by the opiate crisis.”

Alberta Health Services does not have statistics on opioid deaths specifically among South Asian Albertans, but Aulakh said some factors put the community at higher risk when it comes to addiction and access to treatment.

READ MORE: Calgary South Asian group receives money to fight opioid crisis

A language barrier means many new Canadians don’t know about or understand treatment programs. He and another staff member speak Punjabi to ensure treatment plans and counselling are clear.

“There were a few [patients] who were actually traveling to India, paying out of their pocket for the residential treatment, without being aware that there are these services free of cost offered by [AHS],” Aulakh said.
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Some of his older patients used opium poppy pods, or doda, when they lived in India. When they moved to Canada, their addictions led them to other opioids, including heroin. Many use the drugs to help them work longer hours.

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Aulakh says patients are often too scared to ask for help, because they don’t know Canadian health care is confidential.

“There is a fear… that if [authorities] found out about their [opioid] use… it will impact their employment opportunities… their immigration status.”

One 28-year-old patient, who did not want to be identified, said they feel stigma is a particularly big issue in the South Asian community. Addiction is viewed as a weakness.

“No one talks about it… you feel shame [if] your son died with heroin,” the patient said.

He said when young men suddenly die, the family often blames a heart attack.

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Harbinder Jhand knows of one man who died of a fatal overdose last month. In 2014, Jhand overdosed on what he thought was an oxycodone pill.

“I [swallowed] the pill and I don’t know where I am… I am lucky I survived that,”  the 45-year-old said.

Jhand became addicted to oxycodone, then heroin, after a back injury in 2001. He estimates he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on drugs over the years.

Now, through Savera, he takes methadone every day to curb cravings and prevent withdrawal.

“[My] past life, I have no money, I didn’t pay rent, I’m almost homeless,” Jhand said. “Now I have a car, I pay my rent, everything.

“This medication helps so much.”

Savera has about 200 patients. Most are men recovering from heroin addiction.


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